7.22 (#223): Travis Lewis, LB, Oklahoma
Timing is everything. Opportunity knocks but once. Pigs get fed, hogs get slaughtered. You never get a second chance to leave a first impress—okay, well that one doesn’t exactly fit but you get the gist.
The Lions’ final member of the 2012 draft class never dreamed he’d be drafted in the latter half of the seventh round. Indeed, in the 2011 draft cycle the NFL Draft Advisory Board gave him a second-round grade. Lewis, according to Tulsaworld.com, wanted to lead his Sooners to a national championship—and he wanted to be some team’s first draft choice in 2012, not their last.
Coming out of Robert E. Lee HS in San Antonio, TX, Lewis was a 6’-1,” 213-pound linebacker with searing speed and obvious potential. You can’t have that kind of ceiling in Texas and go unnoticed, and he certainly didn’t. He received offers from pretty much the entire Big XII, and committed to Nebraska as a junior.
Lewis was switched to tailback his senior year, and didn't miss a beat—he rushed for 1,436 yards on 222 carries. He attended the Army combine and NIKE camp, where he ran an “electronically timed” 4.34. Cough.
During that senior season, however, Oklahoma assistant Bobby Jack Wright kept planting bugs in his ear, as Lewis told OUDaily.com:
“He just kept pushing, and he made me think about some things,” Lewis said. “Every time something bad would happen to Nebraska, he would be on the phone saying, ‘You see that?’”
Even while he was committed to Nebraska, Lewis said OU was always in the back of his mind.
“I committed (to NU) as a junior, and that’s too soon to commit,” Lewis said. “You’re young and you don’t really know what you want.”
In the final days and hours before NLI Signing Day, Lewis decommitted from Nebraska, and ultimately signed with OU. Rivals graded Lewis out as a 4-star (5.8) OLB prospect, ranked 20th at his position. Scout also gave Lewis 4 stars, and rated him the 10th-best MLB. Lewis was invited to the 2007 US Army All-American Bowl, and repped Oklahoma (as a tailback).
But the high-flying Sooners had no plans to deploy Lewis as a power back. He switched back to outside linebacker, redshirted a year, and then blew everybody up.
How did he blow everybody up? Let me count the ways: AP Big XII Defensive Newcomer of the Year, AP Big XII first team, All-Big XII Academic first team, 144 total tackles (breaking Brian Bosworth’s freshman record), 12 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 7 passes defensed and 4 INTs for 108 return yards (!). His performance was a big part of why the Sooners made it to the BCS National Championship Game.
What happened over the next two seasons is statistically interesting. His total tackles (109, 109, 84), TFLs (9.5, 5.5, 4.0), and sacks (1.0, 1.5, 1.0) all declined. OU played 14 games in 2008, 13 games in 2009 and 14 games in 2010, so his rates for all three of those stats declined pretty consistently.
Quick disclaimer: in order to show all this stuff on the same graph in a meaningful way, “tackles per game” has been divided by ten. Still, you can see quite clearly: from his freshman year to his sophomore year, Travis Lewis’s per-game production of tackles, TFLs, sacks and INTs dramatically declined from his freshman year to his senior year.
But what’s that orange line?
That's his solo-to-assist ratio. As a freshman, it was 0.95; he had more assists than solos. As a senior, it was 1.80; he had nearly twice as many solos as assists. This paints a very clear picture of Lewis’ maturation from a “pile jumper” using his speed to run all over the field and get in on every tackle to a veteran run-stopper. In the numbers, you can see him reading the offense, getting to the right hole and making the play unassisted.
His declining total production may have been partially caused by his situation’s decline; Lewis still led the Sooners in tackles for four straight seasons. Rivals.com even listed him as "one
Nevertheless, his offseason accolades grew a little dimmer from his freshman year to his junior campaign. In 2009 he was named first-team All Big XII by the coaches, but the media tabbed him for their second team. In 2010, he was named second team All-Big XII by both coaches and media. He asked the NFL to assess his draft stock and they gave him that fateful second-round grade.
Lewis decided to return to college, try and get the ring he’d fallen just short of in 2008, and to plant himself firmly in first-round territory. Instead he broke his foot.
As Tulsaworld.com recounts, Lewis broke his sesamoid bone on the first day of padded summer practice—missing all of camp, the first game of the season, and an open date. Despite losing that game, and an entire offseason of training and development, Lewis’s 84 tackles still tied for the highest on the team. He again was named to the coaches’ and the AP’s All-Big XII second team.
He added weight to impress the scale at the combine, but he failed to impress the stopwatch. Remember his “electronically timed 4.34” in high school camps? Five years later, weighing 30 pounds more, he cut a 4.88.
“It’s not about stats sometimes. It’s about how fast you run, how high you can jump.” –Travis Lewis, per NewsOK.com
Indeed it is. Most of all, though, it’s about how fast you run and high you jump while garnering those statistics. What did the experts see in his play?
ESPN.com’s Scouts, Inc. graded Lewis a 54, a fifth-rounder:
"Possesses above-average diagnostic skills. Reads keys and reacts quickly to the ball. Takes proper angles with run fits. Can be a quarter count late recognizing and reacting to play-action, though.
Did not see explosive power on tape and possesses just marginal point of attack skills. Will drop head and bury himself into blockers essentially taking himself out of the play and sacrificing gap discipline.
Overall range is just adequate compared with career production (445 tackles). Displays some tightness in hips and can take an extra second to transition when having to make a sudden change of direction. Shows an above-average closing burst once getting pointed in the right direction.
A fundamentally sound and reliable tackler. Does a nice job of bringing his hip through and wrapping up upon contact . . . Generally takes proper angles in pursuit and does a nice job of breaking down in the open field.
Displays very good awareness for targets in his area and for passing lanes. Flashes playmaking ability in coverage and has the ball skills to finish plays and secure INT. He has limitations in man coverage, though. Often overaggressive trying to be physical in man coverage working against RBs and can lose balance. Does not provide much a pass-rusher at this point.”
CBSSports.com's Chad Reuter didn't give Lewis an overall grade:
Read & React: Combines very good instincts with above-average reaction skills . . . Great feel in coverage, sees quarterback and receiver, jumps routes to prevent completion, or at least stop yards after the catch . . . One-man wrecking crew against screens because he sniffs them out and has the quickness to grab the receiver.
Run defense: Tougher between the tackles than many expect. Gap-shooter that grabs backs before they get through the line, also willing to throw his body into the hole to create piles and stands up to blocks to stay in the play. Lacks strength to blow up fullbacks and bulk/length to prevent getting engulfed by better lineman at the second level.
Pass defense: Fluid and quick drop into zone, covers enough ground to be Tampa-Two mike and knows where the markers are. Often arrives at the receiver at the same time as the ball, gives up few yards after the catch . . . Creates turnovers with quick reaction time to bring in tipped balls, closes on balls over the middle or baits quarterbacks intro throwing his directions if they do not seeing his deep drop. Loses size battle to many tight ends, easily pushed away on out routes. Caught looking into backfield occasionally instead of getting to receiver in the flat.
Tackling: As secure and reliable a tackler as you'll see in college football [emphasis added]. Not necessarily explosive, but more physical than a chase-and-drag linebacker.
Pass Rush/Blitz: Works more in space than attacking the backfield, but flashes closing speed and agility to reach passers from the blind side or up the middle before they can escape . . . Takes advantage of large holes to get to the quarterback, but must work on using violent hands to rip off lineman and defeat cut blocks from running backs.
Intangibles: Team captain who leads the team on and off the field with words and by example. Four-year starter for one of the top programs in the country. No known character or off-field issues.
Positives: Tough, productive college linebacker with limited upside. Displays a terrific head for the ball, instinctive and quick to react. Chases the action hard, takes good angles to plays and remains disciplined with assignments. Fluid moving laterally, makes plays out to the sidelines and relatively effective in space. Squares into ballcarriers and wraps up when tackling.
Negatives: Slow moving in reverse and lacks a quick backpedal in coverage. Marginally effective on the blitz. Minimal burst to the action and lacks overall closing speed.
Analysis: Lewis was a terrific college linebacker, but he lacks top size/speed numbers for the NFL. He plays smart football, gives effort on every down and could be a valuable backup in a variety of defensive systems.
Pro Football Weekly graded Lewis a 5.39, which I don't have a rubric for but puts him just inside their Top 100, notably higher than anyone else. Also, check out the bolded bit about the interviews; first I've heard of that.
Positives: Athletic build. Instinctive and active. Light on his feet. Good bend, balance and movement skills. Attacks downhill, shoots gaps and ranges to the perimeter. Shows short-area burst and explosion — posted a 36-inch vertical leap and 10-foot, 2-inch broad jump. Flashes striking ability. Times blitzes. Effective dropping into zone — shows awareness, reactions and ball skills. Is productive, does not come off the field and has special-teams experience. Likes to play and it shows. Productive, four-year starter. Confident, intense and motivated.
Negatives: Shows tightness in his hips when he has to redirect suddenly or break down in space. Average bulk strength — outmuscled between the tackles and gives ground to get off blocks (can improve hand use). Struggles to keep himself clean through clutter. Lacks knock-back power. Needs to bring his feet more consistently as a tackler — tries to rip down ballcarriers with his arms and slips off some tackles. Loses positioning in man coverage — can be a liability assigned to quick backs. Turned off executives in the interview process and character has been questioned.
Summary: Brash, emotional, experienced, highly productive, run-and-hit “Will” linebacker and converted running back with chase speed to be effective covered up. Has starter-caliber ability in 4-3 front if he can learn to use his hands better and earn respect of his teammates.
A shorter, undersized backer who is a bit narrow through the hips, but possesses an athletic looking frame. Displays "plus" instincts inside when asked to read and react to the inside run. Does a nice job staying low when sliding laterally and absolutely explodes downhill when he finds the ball . . . Routinely is able to gain a step, absorb contact and fend off blocks through the play . . . Is only an average tackler, tends to go high into ball carriers and will slip off his fair share of backs. [emphasis added]
Is a natural athlete in space vs. the pass game . . . Doesn't waste much motion when asked to click and close, stays compact with his footwork and generates good closing speed off his frame. Keeps his head on a swivel in zone coverage, feels routes around him and exhibits the fluidity to cleanly open up his hips and run. Exhibits good ball skills when he can make a play on the throw and has a knack for being around the football and coming down with key turnovers. Impression: He's a bit undersized and doesn't tackle as well as you would like inside the box. However, he's a good run and hit backer who plays the run well and will be able to make plays vs. the pass game in the NFL. Looks like a day one starter to me as a 43 backer, either on the weak side or possibly in the middle.
Normally, I'd include New Era Scouting's draft guide. They mocked Lewis in the fifth to the Titans, and ranked him 168th overall, which all fits, but the "strengths" and "weaknesses" section seems to have been the a victim of a publishing whoopsie (they list Lewis as a DE/OLB 'tweener and assess him as a DE).
But you folks know what’s up: none of this matters. It’s all a bunch of hot air from talking heads! There’s only one true way to assess the potential of an NFL prospect: YOUTUBE HIGHLIGHT REELS.
Here's an excellent set of clips from his sophomore season, cut-ups of the 2009 road game at Miami. You can see his excellent instincts and solid tackling in the run game. When he gets into the hole, he makes the tackle. When a guard or tackle (like Jason Fox!) get their hands on him, though, he does struggle to shed the blocks. There's a reverse at 2:00 where he shows outstanding recognition and open-field tackling:
Here's a really, really nice set of "positive" and "negative" cutups from several games in the 2010 season. We see more of the same: a lot of athleticism, great recognition and fluidity in space, a lot of big stops in the hole, and an occasional inability to cut through the wash and get off blocks:
I'm disappointed I couldn't find an old-school “hype video” with intro, music, etc. Still, these clips back up the themes we saw repeated in the expert scouting reports.
This is one of the most interesting Meet the Cubs I’ve ever done. Even given the disappointing senior season, the tailing off of total production, and the poor Combine measurables, Travis Lewis had a monster career at Oklahoma. Moreover, despite the lack of eye-popping tackle stats, his progression from athletic “pile jumper” to two-dimensional, three-down player is obvious from both the numbers and the film.
Lewis doesn't have protypical MLB size, and he doesn't have OLB pass-rush skills. But he has the athleticism and instincts to rotate at OLB early, and the run-stuffing chops to be a Tulloch-esque MLB as he develops. He’ll have very stiff competition from Doug Houge and the yet-to-be-MTC’d linebackers from the word go, but he’s got too much natural talent and too much great play on film against too high of a level of competition to simply wash out at this level.
There’s one more cliché that might apply to the career of Travis Lewis: he who laughs last, laughs longest.